February in Budapest
When you live in a hot country, especially if you’re from a Northern European country like the UK, you hanker after a taste of winter. Each February we take a short trip somewhere cold. It’s great to feel the nip of cold air on your face and see your breath steaming in clouds as you walk around.
Buda and Pest
Budapest is split in half by the Danube river which flows through the centre of the city. On one side of the city lies the town of Buda while on the other, you’ve guessed it, Pest.
There are many bridges which cross the Danube and the views towards Buda which lies above the lower lying Pest are spectacular, particularly at night.
The bridge in the photograph is the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and was taken from our hotel window see below..
We stayed at the Hotel InterContinental on the recommendation of a friend. The hotel is the unprepossessing grey building in the photograph, and while its bland exterior is let’s face it, ugly, the views from the rooms are the best in Budapest.
The important thing is to check you have a room with a river view. The views, particularly at night across the Danube and up to Buda are beautiful.
City of Statues
Budapest is sometimes used as a fake Paris in films. With its broad tree lined boulevards such as Andrassy you can see why.
Something that struck us immediately strikes was the number of beautiful statues. From small and intimate ones like the Girl with her Dog to the poignant Shoes on the Bank of Danube (a tribute to 20,000 Jews executed here in 1942). I particularly like the military statues such as the one shown here.
The Danube has always been fordable at Budapest because of the islands that push through the thick grey-green ribbon of water that surges between the banks. Consequently Budapest has a long history of invasion and conflict, all of which is well laid out in the Castle Museum in Buda.
I was fascinated to discover that the Mongols reached Budapest in 1242. The Ottomans were also occupiers of this historic and fascinating city from 1562. The strategic location of the city ensures that its history has endured many different phases, not least the remarkable period in the 1940s to 1960s which saw the city turn from a Nazi stronghold to a member of the Warsaw Pact.
Any visit to Budapest requires you spend time in beautiful Buda. Buda is a marked contrast with the more conventional urban environment of Pest which lies on the plain beneath Buda.
The best way to get there is via the Buda funicular and ideally you’ll be out and out about early in the morning. The streets of Buda are cobbled in places and the architecture of the immaculately preserved buildings is stunning.
Buda also holds two distinct visitor imperatives: the Castle and the Palace each positioned prominently at either end of the escarpment.
Buda also has many small restaurants and coffee shops which means you can happily spend a full day there taking in the magnificent views, stunning architect and quieter atmosphere of this magical location.
Baths and Parks
One of the undoubted highlights of Budapest is the many hot spring water baths. We went to Szechnyi Baths, a magnificent 1912 construction that contains 18 pools.
The atmosphere is unique. Hundreds of Hungarians (and tourists) stand immersed in the warm water, steam billowing all around in the chill February air. The hubbub of conversation and the contrast between the sharp outside temperature and the balmy water makes for a unique experience.
There are many parks in Budapest, including a zoological park close to Szechnyi Baths. We walked a lot during our short trip to Budapest and although it was very cold there were still signs of life in the parks. This pair of Green Woodpeckers allowed us to approach until we were very close.
The best park is the one below Buda Castle which has great views and a path that wanders down the hillside towards the Danube.
We visited the zoo, which in truth was dispiriting as zoos often are. The park close to the zoo (City Park) houses the Vajdahunyad Castle which sits in front of a lake. We also found an ice skating rink which in the gloom of an icy February afternoon took on the feel of a Heronymus Boch painting.
The skaters sketched out their paths across the ice under leaden skies while we tucked into gluehwein and delicious Hungarian pretzels.
Walking back down Andrassy toward our hotel, the lights of the restaurants and bars bathed the streets in neon reds, greens and blues and as we neared the hotel, a gleaming Ferris wheel slowly turned against the ink black February sky.
Ruin Bars and Goulash
Venturing into Pest we paid a visit to the Holocaust and Ghetto Museums, each a sombre reminder of a dark period in Budapest’s recent history.Behind the busy boulevards lined with cafes and restaurants and in the quieter less visited back streets who will find another of Budapest’s charming features.
These are so called ‘Ruin Bars.’ They are in the old District VII (the Jewish Quarter) and they developed in the dereliction and decay following the end of the Second World War. There are few signs that announce their location but they’re easy to track down.
Our favourite was Szimpla Kert, the oldest and original. Inside, there is food and drink and often small markets selling local produce. The vibe is ‘underground’ and although they are not really quite so undergound as they were, they’re still fascinating and cool locations for a coffee, glass of local beer or some goulash.
Goulash is of course the Hugarian national dish and it is delicious. We really enjoyed the food and atmosphere at Retek Bistro where the goulash was sensational.